Catherine M. Cole


On her book Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Stages of Transition

Cover Interview of February 11, 2010

The wide angle

Once at a dinner party, when I described my book as being about the performative dimensions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an attorney who was there quipped, “Well, that must mean you take a very dim view of the truth commission.”  I responded by saying that, rather, his comment suggested he took a very dim view of performance. 

Words like “theatre,” “performance,” “spectacle” and “show” are often used pejoratively when applied to politics and the law.  It was precisely the conflation of theatricality and justice that made Hannah Arendt so uncomfortable with Adolph Eichmann’s trial.  Justice “demands seclusion,” she said.  In a similar vein, South Africa’s Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangaqa Mncwango dismissed the TRC and its Chairperson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, by saying, “The TRC has become a sensationalist circus of horrors presided over by a weeping clown craving for the front stage spotlight.” 

In looking at the TRC through the lens of performance I neither see the commission negatively nor do I valorize it with romantic notions about the miraculous, cathartic, healing potential of performance. I simply assert that the commission was a performance—and that we need to understand how its performative dimensions operated.

The book’s point of entry is somewhat unusual.  I examine several major political trials from the late 1950s and early 1960s, all of which included Nelson Mandela among the accused.  While the field of transitional justice out of which the TRC arises usually focuses on state transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, I argue that we must also look at how the law is used as a performative space by a regime that is becoming totalitarian.

The apartheid state used trials to make a show—both to the people of South Africa and the world.  Anti-apartheid activists also manipulated these trials, both inside and outside the courtroom, to create a counter spectacle.  These early political trials were as much a part of the performative genealogy of the TRC as were both the Nuremburg and Eichmann trials and the sixteen truth commissions that preceded the TRC.

The book then examines several layers of mediation that were inherently part of the commission’s telling and performing of apartheid’s stories.  To give testimony meant, inherently, to interpret and to be interpreted.  This is evident in the rest of the book: I examine the language of interpreters who translated all the hearings from within a phalanx of grey booths that always lined the hearing halls, a weekly television documentary program that covered the TRC, and retrospective views of the TRC in the media and art that were produced ten years later, in 2006.  I see all of these iterations as valuable and meaningful reverberations emanating from actions of atrocity that were narrated, not performed, before the TRC.

I believe that, aside from being the first book to analyze a unique and defining feature of the TRC—its public enactment—Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission is notable in a number of other regards.  The book is based upon rich empirical research, including interviews I conducted with journalists, commissioners, and language interpreters; close analysis of public testimony; and a comprehensive review of TRC Special Report, an important television news program on the commission that aired weekly for two years.  I assert that the “completeness” of the vision of the apartheid past, which was mandated in the commission’s authorizing act, can be discerned as vividly through in-depth analysis of performed testimony as through macro-narratives that calculate in quantitative terms apartheid’s national dimensions, which the commission’s own final report attempted to do.

My book diverges from much existing literature on the TRC: I use a humanities-based approach that moves beyond the evaluative mode.  Rather than celebrating or criticizing the commission, Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission analyzes the rich archive it left behind. Regardless of one’s opinion of the commission’s efficacy, the TRC’s archive demands our analytical attention.

My last book, Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre, narrated how a particular popular theatre in Ghana, the concert party, served as a kind of living newspaper through which a largely non-literate population discussed, represented, engaged, and criticized changes wrought by colonialism and the early years of independence.

Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission represented for me a radical shift of geographic focus from west to southern Africa.  The project was also a shift because rather than studying theatre per se, I used theories from performance studies to analyze something that wasn’t framed as theatre or art.  What connects these two projects is a consistent focus on how performance has served as a potent and complex forum for negotiating rapid cultural, political and social changes on the African continent in the 20th and 21st centuries.